When should I take sleeping aids?
In general, sleeping aids are most suitable for short-term use – for example when suffering jetlag they can help you get back to a normal sleep pattern. It is not unusual to have the occasional sleepless night, especially if there is something exciting happening the next day - this should not require a sleeping aid.
You may have a sleepless night if you are, for example, nervous or excited because of a long-awaited holiday. If you do not want to be tired for this big event, you could take a single dose of a sleep remedy, giving you the best chance to feel bright and alert the next day.
If you are suffering from sleep problems or a sleep disorder, it is important to discuss your problems with a healthcare professional so that you can find something that is safe and effective for you. It is important to remember that the side effects of some sleeping aids (particularly sleeping tablets prescribed by your doctor) become apparent only after long-term use.
These are medicines prescribed by your doctor, usually to help you get over a short spell of bad sleep. The main types of sleeping tablets available are:
- Benzodiazepines – these work by decreasing the activity in the brain. Valium (also known as diazepam) falls into this class of drug
- Z drugs – zaleplon, zolpidem and zopiclone. These have a similar effect on the brain as benzodiazepines
- Melatonin – this is a hormone produced in the brain. It is believed to regulate sleep patterns and may be prescribed to help re-establishing the sleep rhythm with jetlag.
However, prescribed sleeping tablets are usually a last resort because of the side effects associated with them. These may include:
- Loss of muscle co-ordination
- Memory Loss
- Dependency or addiction
These are medicines available from a pharmacy without a prescription. A number of these sleeping aids are available and in general, they take advantage of drowsiness as a side effect.
For example, anti-histamines are often an ingredient in this group of medicines while in fact, they were originally developed to help with the symptoms of allergic reactions.
While over-the-counter remedies may be effective for the occasional sleepless night, the safety of these medicines is still unknown:
- Tolerance develops very quickly – this means that they can lose their effectiveness
- You may feel groggy and unwell the next day
- They may interact with the other medicines you are taking
Many people look to herbal remedies as an alternative to prescription medicines or over-the-counter sleeping aids. These have become increasingly popular and are available from your local or high street health food store and pharmacy.
Such herbal remedies include:
- Valerain herb – this is perhaps the most popular herb used to aid sleep. It can be used on its own, but is often combined with other herbs such as Passion Flower or Hops. One example is Dormeasan® Valerian & Hops drops containing extracts of freshly harvested valerian root and hops. It comes in the form of a liquid tincture and should not leave you feeling drowsy the next day
- Chamomile – this is often used as a tea to help relax the body and induce sleep
- Lavender Essential Oil – this is very popular as an aromatherapy remedy. The scent from a few drops placed on your pillow can help to calm your body and mind.
Some people seek sleeping aids which do not come in the form of a tablet, capsule or tincture. Complementary therapies to aid sleep include:
- Hypnotherapy – this teaches you to relax and switch your thoughts off. If you believe that you can’t sleep, then you won’t sleep. Hypnotherapy tries to counteract these thoughts, inducing a good night’s sleep
- Yoga – we know that this is a technique which can help you relax. It helps your body to wind down and your mind to switch off thoughts, helping you to drift into sleep
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – this is a behavioural programme which teaches you to replace thoughts preventing you from sleeping with ones that help induce sleep
- Bright light therapy – light affects the release of melatonin in the brain. Exposing your brain to light at the correct times of the day helps to reset your biological clock and improve your sleep pattern. Light therapy can also help if you are feeling low in mood, especially during the darker, winter months of the year.